Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we’re looking at the cosmic horror ending of John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness.
There’s something deliciously foolhardy about explaining an ending that is, in essence, all about the absence of a lucid explanation. John Carpenter’s 1994 film lacks clarity by design and openly mocks those who would seek to divine sense out of something this arcane and slimy. But, like Sam Neill’s John Trent, at some point, you have to make your peace with the feeble borders of the human mind. I, for one, welcome our new eldritch overlords. So let’s dive in, shall we?
In The Mouth of Madness follows John Trent, a freelance insurance investigator and ardent skeptic who is hired to locate massively popular horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow). The whole world is going mad for Cane’s books. Quite literally. Something about his work is splitting people’s pupils and turning them into bloated, homicidal wretches. The latest, and final, entry in the Hobb’s End series is Cane’s most anticipated work to date. And with both Cane and his manuscript missing, Cane’s publisher is getting antsy.
Trent’s investigation leads him to where else but Hobb’s End itself. There, he finds Cane, who informs Trent that the public fervor for his work has roused an ancient evil. Trent, Cane explains, is merely one of the characters in his latest book. And the plot dictates that Trent will return the manuscript to Cane’s publisher, furthering the end of the human race. Despite himself, Trent complies.
Hoping to nip the inevitable in the bud, Trent rushes to the publisher to urge them not to publish the manuscript. Only, somehow, they already have. The book is flying off the shelves. There’s even a movie in production. Everyone, whether they read or not, will be exposed to the dangerous, preternatural words of Sutter Cane. Knowing full well that it’s only a matter of time before the world falls to bits, Trent grabs an ax and secures himself a one-way ticket to a psych ward.
The film’s framing device, so popular in Lovecraftian fiction, comes full circle. Our mad narrator has brought us up to speed, though he considers the asylum more of a fortress than a prison, a padded citadel protecting him from the mounting chaos of the outside world. Things do sound pretty bad out there. But then, at a fever pitch, all goes quiet and Trent’s cell door swings open. Stumbling out of his cell, Trent picks his way through the wreckage and makes his way towards the empty city. A staticky radio broadcast tells us that the mass killings Trent feared have come and gone. Trent spies a theater, its marquee boldly proclaiming its latest (and last) attraction: In the Mouth of Madness.
Trent wanders inside, swipes a bucket of popcorn, and takes a seat. Scenes from the film we’ve just watched unfold. Trent’s eyes widen in wonder as he watches his past self on-screen, insisting that nobody pulls his strings and that this is reality. A small smile forms in the corner of Trent’s mouth that splits into laughter. His guffaw gets the better of him and Trent’s head bends backward, his eyes shut tight as if to confirm, one last time, that this is really happening. The decimation of mankind sinks in, and Trent’s laughter melds into a manic sob as Jim Lang and Carpenter’s raucous heavy metal riffs signal the cut to black.
At the end of In The Mouth of Madness, we’re left with a series of existential questions. The first being whether it’s even possible to discuss the film’s ending without sounding totally high. To put it mildly: what is and isn’t real is left ambiguous. Are these final moments Trent’s mind snapping after an encounter with brain-breaking, eldritch monstrosities? Or, is Trent really just a cog in Cane’s fictional universe? If so, was he always a fictional character or was he a real person absorbed by Cane’s imagination? Is the movie Trent watches a film within the film or is Carpenter’s film itself the film within the film? Was anything that we just watched “real”?
If you’re head’s starting to hurt, you’re on the right track. Let me explain.
In The Mouth of Madness is the third entry in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, a deeply upsetting trio of films about, what else: the end of the world. The triptych kicked off in 1982 with The Thing, a genre-defying “who-is-it?” about a thawed-out alien body-snatching its way to survival one ratty pair of long johns at a time. Five years later came Prince of Darkness, a waking nightmare of science, satanism, and oracular VHS transmissions. In 1994, In The Mouth of Madness completed the set,
More than any other genre, horror has the license to end on a darker note. And it does. Frequently. Hulking psychos cheat death to ensure more sequels, would-be final girls are dragged kicking and screaming off-screen, and last-act rug pulls devilishly sour premature hope for a happy ending. But there’s something different about the Apocalypse Trilogy. Each of these films’ endings feels like a death knell, a stark, unplaceable glimpse of horrid, otherworldly prophecy. Their final beats aren’t just depressing, they’re soul-shaking. Each film in the trilogy pushes its characters up against a wall, trapping them in remote research facilities, desolate churches, and mental prisons. The enemy assumes a solid, rotting, twisted shape, but that’s never the full story. A larger, less tangible, threat always looms out of sight.
In this way, the ending of In The Mouth of Madness is the unabashed punctuation mark of a trilogy that was, at its heart, always indebted to the horrific machinations of cosmic horror. To that oft-misunderstood genre of fiction best defined in a 1927 letter by its popular (if problematic) progenitor, H.P. Lovecraft: as “the fundamental premise that common human laws and interest and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at large.” There’s a common misconception that Lovecraftian horror and cosmic horror are the same thing. Or that, more ridiculously, cosmic horror is anything horrific set in the cosmos. The genre is difficult to wrap your head around. And that is, as it were, kind of the whole point.
Cosmic horror is McReady and Childs in The Thing, waiting to freeze to death below a void-like, now threatening, sky. It’s the consumptive dreams within dreams that warp Marsh’s reality in Prince of Darkness. And it’s Trent’s manic despair at the realization that everything—from his skepticism to his world-ending compliance—was part of a larger plan that he had no say in. Trent was not the author of his own story. Rather, he was simultaneously the pawn and star of someone else’s. Reality’s not what it used to be. What else can you do but laugh?